St. Petersburg, Russia (CNN) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates did not speak about Libya during public events in St. Petersburg on Monday, while being kept briefed in private about developments in the U.S. and military action there.
He did mention Libya in passing when talking with some Russian naval officers, though, said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. Later, at a photo-op, a Russian journalist asked a question about Libya, but Morrell interrupted before Gates could answer.
A bright, early spring sun gleamed on the gilded bell tower as Gates was granted the honor of firing the noon cannon at the Peter and Paul Fortress over St. Petersburg, a custom dating back to Peter the Great. Gates may oversee the world's largest arsenal, but rarely does he get such hands-on, close-up involvement with the hardware. With the city laid out in front of him and the ice-covered river below, Gates practiced a couple of times and then counted down the final five seconds to the traditional midday firing. He was presented with the shell casing as a memento of the day.
The specially equipped jet that zips Gates around the world also functions as emergency command post.
The E4B aircraft, a converted Boeing 747, allows Gates to maintain constant contact with the White House and Pentagon, especially important amid two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the military action by the U.S. and allies against Libya.
The plane was refueled by two Air Force tankers shortly after leaving Andrews Air Force Base, since the jet is too heavy to lift off fully fueled.
The crew showed off the refueling operation, with a chance to sit behind the pilot, Lt. Col. Mike Howe, in the cockpit as it was taking place. The KC-135 tanker loomed larger and larger until it was only 36 feet away and just slightly above the 747. The boom operator in the tail of the tanker was easily visible in a small window as the fuel line was maneuvered to the other plane. With a tight seal, fuel pumped into the plane's tanks at a rate of 4,400 pounds per minute.
With the two planes just yards apart, there was only minor turbulence in the skies above Halifax, Nova Scotia, as Gates' plane made its way to St. Petersburg.
Gates told the Russians a bit about his Cold Warrior past at the CIA and National Security Council on Monday. He praised the new cooperation between the U.S. and Russia. But a little nostalgia was detected. "In the days of the Cold War, it seemed the world was a lot simpler," Gates told Russian Navy officers. "There was the Soviet Union. There was us. Almost every problem of the world was defined by that relationship. Once the Cold War got over, the world got a lot more complicated."
This trip to Russia, tackling big issues like missile defense and the future of Afghanistan, also is a farewell tour of sorts for Gates, who still won't pin down when he will leave his post.
He often notes that he has served eight U.S. presidents at the CIA, the White House and the Pentagon, but he also says he is most impressed by his interaction with the young men and women of the armed forces.
"When the time comes for me to leave this job, believe me, that is the only thing I will miss," Gates said Monday.